Those who have participated in Poetry Out Loud, whether as a student, a teacher, a coach, or a judge, know what a powerful experience it can be, especially for those who advance beyond the school level to compete at a regional competition. Each year one Arizona high school student advances all the way to the National Finals in Washington, D.C. In 2017, Glendale’s Kellen Vu, a junior at Arizona School for the Arts in Phoenix, won that honor.

A young man of keen intellect and many talents, Kellen wrote an essay about the experience of winning the title of 2017 Arizona Poetry Out Loud State Champion. He has generously allowed us to share it here.

Laws of Life

It’s striking, really, what can be accomplished in five seconds. In the last five seconds alone, 205,000 Facebook posts were created, 375 McDonald’s burgers were sold, and 3,150 steel cans were recycled. However, among the most important things that can happen in five seconds is the choice to be brave or to back down.

It’s said that people fear public speaking more than they fear death. For as long as I can remember, I’ve easily been one of those people. I know the feeling all too well: my chest tightens with panic, my vision spirals in pirouettes, and my body grows numb from the toes upward, like stepping ever deeper into a stream of ice. Imagine my horror when in a dire turn of events, I was selected to recite a poem by memory in front of my entire school. The event was hosted by Poetry Out Loud, an annual poetry-reading competition. Four students were selected from each grade, and the sixteen competitors would then perform for a panel of three judges. Throughout the next few weeks, I found myself anxiously pacing in circles while muttering lines under my breath. Some nights, I even sacrificed sleep to rehearse in front of a mirror, struggling to suppress my nervous mannerisms. Despite my anxiety, I was firmly determined to try my best.

When the fateful day arrived, I was seated backstage, my legs quivering like a flame in the wind. One by one, the competitors delivered their performances, and I was simultaneously mesmerized and daunted. Their voices were warm and resonant as if a beam of sunshine had dissolved into sound; how could I possibly compare? All too soon, my English teacher beckoned me to the podium, but I was glued to my seat, desperately trying to remember how to breathe. I could already feel the stares piercing mercilessly through my soul. Then I recalled an adage my dad once told me: “Nobody is brave every minute of every day; you only need five seconds of courage at a time to make the change you want to see.” So I began to count.

Five. I closed my eyes and drew a slow, deep breath. Four. I gradually rose to my feet, struggling to steady my trembling legs. Three. Step by step, I forced myself onstage, footsteps resonating with my heartbeat. Two. I approached the microphone and faced the sea of eyes; there was no turning back now. One. I cleared my throat. “I’ll be reciting ‘Fishing on the Susquehanna in July’ by Billy Collins.”

Five seconds of courage were just the push I needed; weeks of practice took care of the rest. I was amazed to find the words rolling off my tongue almost as easily as they had in front of the mirror. With the final line – “I imagined him springing out of the frame” – I breathed a sigh of relief and returned to my seat to enjoy the remaining performances. After the last recital, the judges began to compile our scores. Although I could still feel adrenaline coursing through my veins, a vast smile stretched across my face, and a single thought occupied my mind: I did it. I really did it. Lost in reflection, I nearly missed the judges announce, “The winner of Poetry Out Loud 2017, who will be representing Arizona School for the Arts at the regional competition, is … Kellen Vu!”

The audience burst into applause as I sat frozen in my seat, stunned beyond belief. I’d been too preoccupied with overcoming my fear to even entertain the possibility of placing. Words can’t describe the ensuing elation; in that moment, I swear I could soar. Miraculously, a few weeks later I found myself winning the regional and state competitions and progressing to the national championship! Never did I imagine that such a spectacular experience could unfold from a mere five seconds of courage. So whatever you’re afraid of – be it public speaking, failure, or rejection – take a deep breath, count to five, and leap. You never know where you’re going to land, but rest assured that something great will come of it.

Kellen Vu
12 February 2017

Kellen Vu, a junior at Arizona School for the Arts in Phoenix, represented Arizona at the 12th Annual Poetry Out Loud national finals competition in Washington, DC, April 25-26, 2017. The Arizona Poetry Out Loud State Finals were held on Saturday, March 12, 2017, at the studios of Arizona PBS in Downtown Phoenix.

A program of the National Endowment for the Arts and The Poetry Foundation, Poetry Out Loud is a poetry recitation competition delivered in high schools in all 50 states and three territories through partnerships with State Arts Agencies. Arizona’s Poetry Out Loud program is managed by the Arizona Commission on the Arts, an agency of the State of Arizona, with support from regional partners, University of Arizona Poetry Center and Phonetic Spit.

For more information about how your high school can participate, visit

Cover Photo Credit: © James Kegley